January 25, 1940 – Nazis Decide to Construct a Concentration Camp Near Auschwitz and Review of “Smoke Over Birkenau” by Liana Millu

On January 25, 1940, the SS [the Schutzstaffel, a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II] decided to construct a concentration camp near Oswiecim (Auschwitz). This central location and its proximity to rail lines allowed the Nazis to deport people to the camp from all over Europe.

After shortly more than a year, Reichsfuehrer SS and Chief of German Police Heinrich Himmler determined that the space was not adequate for the expected influx of prisoners and on March 1, 1941 ordered the building of an additional camp roughly two miles from the first. This second camp became known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau.

Birkenau served primarily as an extermination camp. Most of the rooms for “showers” supposedly for delousing incoming prisoners were actually gas chambers. The Jewish Virtual Library explains:

At Birkenau, only about 10 percent of Jewish transports were registered, disinfected, shaven and showered in the ‘central sauna’ before being assigned barracks as opposed to being sent directly to the death chambers. In the spring of 1942, two provisional gas chambers at Birkenau were constructed out of peasant huts, known as the ‘bunkers.’

The victims murdered in the ‘bunkers’ were first obliged to undress in temporary wooden barracks erected nearby. Their bodies were taken out of the gas chambers and pushed to pits where they were burned in the open.”

Women and children on the Birkenau arrival platform known as the “ramp”. (via Yad Vashem Auschwitz Album)

The majority — probably about 90% — of the inmates in Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This means over a million people. More than nine out of every ten were Jews. A large proportion of the more than 70,000 non-Jewish Poles who died or were killed in the Auschwitz complex perished in Birkenau. So did approximately 20 thousand Gypsies, in addition to Soviet POWs and prisoners of other nationalities. 

Liana Millu was a Jewish Italian Partisan who was arrested in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 672 people in her transport, 57 lived to return home. Smoke Over Birkenau is one of the few testimonies to record the experience of women in the Nazi concentration camps. The six vignettes in this slim volume tell the stories of some of the women who were the most memorable to Liana. The continuation of quotidian “human” occupations in the midst of such inhumanity is amazing: generosity, greed, jealousy, swapping recipes, celebrating birthdays, secret births, and of course, constant death. The details of life in the women’s barracks are frightening, humbling, and engrossing.

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The inmates often struggled with the big question: where was God? At one point, Liana recalls herself asking:

Whatever will become of me? I wondered, the mud splattering at my feet. Whatever will become of me? And of Lili, and all the rest? It wasn’t so much the fear of death that pained me, but rather the galling futility of this existence suspended between two voids. Here today, gone tomorrow. What could be the point of all this suffering, bounded by parentheses, in the midst of nothing? Was it possible some God was looking down on me from above? Why did he put me here in the first place if I was simply to suffer and vanish without a trace? Had he no mercy, this God?”

Lotti, another inmate who chose to become a member of the Auschwitz Puffkommando (brothel), was bemoaning the rejection by her sister and fellow-inmate Gustine over her choice:

She was always dragging God’s name into it, Gustine was. It became an obsession with her. ‘God won’t forsake his creatures. God knows what he’s doing. God can’t allow injustice to triumph.’ And meanwhile the crematorium just keeps puffing away and ashes are dropping on my head.”

Most of the vignettes end with ashes. Yet Millu gives life again to the many women who joined the columns of smoke rising from the crematoria of Birkenau.

Published in English by Northwestern University Press, 1998

Note: Translation by Sharon Schwartz was the winner of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award

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